Friday, November 24, 2017

ADIFF ’17: The Chemo Club

For two aging former models living in South Africa on their pensions, inflation is way more depressing than liver spots. That assumes they can still access their pension, but a sleazy fund manager has secretly raided small accounts like theirs, to cover-up his other financial shenanigans (by the way, pensioners suffers the exact same consequences when central banks engage in loose money inflation, but you won’t find a lot of screenwriters out there who really understand monetary policy). Regardless, Lulu Fredericks and Faith Moloi want their money back, so they will steal it themselves in Thandi Brewer’s The Chemo Club (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

In the swinging sixties, Fredericks portrayed Tessa, the action sex-goddess in a series of photo-designed comics books and Moloi was the model for the Pam Grier-esque “Her.” Those were the days. Currently, Moloi works part-time sweeping floors at the hospital where Fredericks just received her fatal cancer diagnosis. Fredericks wants to live out her remaining six months in style, but her pension has mysteriously vanished. Same for Moloi, who is the sole support of her unemployed daughter and entitled grandchildren.

Obviously, Grant Roberts, the odious public face of Trusted Corp is up to no good, but nobody seems to care. Therefore, the only logical course of action is to knock over the joint. Somehow, the brassy Fredericks convinces the more passive Moloi to go along with her scheme. Fanboy Sivu will go along with the caper for the sake of his pop culture thesis. They will also recruit their former photographer and lover, Gerhard, because they obviously need an eighty-year-old with a monocle. Periodically, we watch their comic book alter ego battling villainy, in ways that parallel their ebbing fortunes.

Clearly, Chemo Club is heavily derived from Going in Style and the pre-Kate & Allie Jane Curtain-Susan Saint James vehicle How to Beat the High Cost of Living, which is still the much funnier film, even though it has at least one joke that would cause apoplexy in the current climate. In contrast, Chemo Club is a tame comedy about oldsters doing it for themselves, which barely registers more edge than the embarrassingly slapsticky Love Punch.

Still, Brümilda van Rensburg, the Grand Dame of South African television, has plenty of regal presence as Fredericks. However, she does not develop much chemistry with either Lilian Dube’s Moloi or Tobie Cronje’s Gerhard. At times, Cronje is almost criminally shticky, but Rea Rangaka is probably an even worse offender as Sivu. Yet, somehow Shoki Mokgapa maintains her dignity as Roberts’ innocent assistant, whom Sivu crushes on hard.

It is interesting to see unpretentious popular cinema from other countries, but Chemo Club just doesn’t travel that well (unlike energetically likable South African exports, like Hear Me Move and White Wedding). The comedy is about as broad as it gets and caper fans will feel short-changed by the lack of tick-tock caper details. Best saved for unfussy fans of Marigold Hotels, The Chemo Club screens this Sunday (11/26) and Monday (11/27) at Teachers College, Columbia, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.